They're not celebrities. Their voice coach isn't either. But #MeToo changed their lives.
Posted February 6, 2018 9:46 p.m. EST
NEW YORK (CNN) — Samantha Shulman isn't a celebrity. Neither is the man that she and at least 15 other women have accused of various forms of sexual misconduct. But #MeToo is changing their lives.
Shulman was 23 years old when she started seeing respected voice coach Peter Rofé in 2004. She had just moved to New York from Arizona with her best friend. She hoped to turn her experience as a radio DJ into a lucrative career doing voice-overs in television and radio ads.
Shulman said she had been working with Rofé for more than six months when he locked the door of his Manhattan studio during a session. She said he persuaded her to take off her shirt so she could get more into the read. He told her that her voice turned him on, she said, and "he took his penis out."
"He asked if I wanted to touch it, and then he reached down and he touched my breast," Shulman said. "I remember putting my shirt back on, and I didn't say anything. I was in shock."
For years, Shulman carried the guilt and shame of the encounter, she said. She had no idea other women had similar stories about him. Then, #MeToo erupted, and she learned she wasn't alone.
As women across the country came forward in October with stories of sexual harassment, some former clients of Rofé also had allegations to share. They found each other online and formed a private Facebook group with two goals: supporting each other and finding allegations that could lead to a viable case for prosecution.
Sixteen women from the group spoke to CNN, accusing Rofé of various forms of sexual misconduct from the early 2000s to September 2017. Eight of those women filed formal complaints with the NYPD's Special Victims Division, a law enforcement source told CNN. Two other women also filed complaints, but declined to speak with CNN.
Rofé declined to comment when reached by phone. He directed inquiries to his lawyer, who denied wrongdoing on his behalf.
"For many years, Mr. Rofé has been a wonderful teacher and mentor to those aspiring to a career in voice-overs. He is proud of his clients and their achievements, and has always acted professionally and respectfully," Andrew Miltenberg said in a statement.
Rofé came up on law enforcement's radar before #MeToo. Another law enforcement source said he was arrested based on allegations that he exposed himself during a recording session in 2004. The case was dismissed and the record was sealed, though the reasoning is unclear, the source said.
A sisterhood forms
In January, inspired by the national conversation about sexual misconduct, Shulman sought out Rofé's Yelp page. She saw a comment criticizing his business practices and couldn't resist the urge to comment.
"#MeToo Peter Rofé! Young women be warned," she wrote. "This man gets naked in hopes you will too. Do not work with him! Unless you want to get sexually assaulted and pay him for it. I never said anything about it years ago. I feel it is important now."
Across the country in California, her comment caught Elizabeth Laime's attention. Laime says Rofé sexually harassed her in 2005 when she took voice lessons with him. Then, back in October, she wrote on Facebook about Rofé, and almost instantly, responses flooded in. Peter Rofé: #MeToo, #MeToo, #MeToo. Over and over again.
Some of those women followed Laime's lead with their own Facebook posts. Within two days, Laime had identified at least 13 accusers in various Facebook threads.
She connected everyone on an email chain; they then formed a private Facebook group called "The No Fun Club." So far, nearly 30 women have joined.
It's the latest sisterhood to emerge from #MeToo, as the movement widens beyond high-profile figures, demonstrating the scope of the problem.
'He made it seem like he cared about my career'
Today, Shulman is a graphic designer. Laime is a comedy writer. Both say that their experiences with Rofé discouraged them from pursuing careers in voice acting and left them with years of shame and doubt.
Rofé came highly recommended by agents and other voice actors, who praised him as the gold standard in coaching. In addition to one-on-one sessions, he offered assistance producing demo reels.
His website features testimonials from voice actors whose work includes sports, entertainment and spots for global brands.
Shulman says in the months before Rofé showed her his penis, he would continually ask her to read provocative scripts.
He often complimented her "sexy voice" -- which didn't bother her on its own, she said. Others had described her voice that way when she was a radio DJ; she sometimes described it that way herself.
"He made it seem like he cared about my career," Shulman said.
Then, during one session, he mooned her in what she perceived as an attempt "to make her feel more comfortable," she said. But she continued working with Rofé for months afterward, determined to pursue her new career.
Her best friend, Cari Noriega, remembered Shulman telling her about the mooning, saying she played it off casually. Shulman remembered that she couldn't bear to share the story of the second incident. She was too embarrassed.
"At first I thought it was strange. We were in our early 20s and just moved to New York City," said Noriega, Shulman's friend of 20 years. "But, then all of a sudden, she stopped pursuing voice-over."
After Rofé exposed himself the second time, Shulman says, she stopped seeing him shortly afterward. She says the incident drove her to abandon her dream job.
She blamed herself for taking her shirt off, and kept the incident a secret from her husband for a decade. It took extensive therapy for Shulman to come to terms with what happened, she said. She never wanted to have a daughter after the incident, "because I would never want her to go through something like that."
'Because he didn't rape me, I didn't know what to make of it'
Laime, too, said that Rofé commented on her "sexy voice" and made her feel as if he was trying to groom her. He talked about his wife and showed her pictures of his newborn child, she said.
"He made sure I felt safe with him," Laime said.
In one session, Laime said Rofé suggested they read a script for a commercial in which two beers flirted with each other. Laime said he told her that other clients took off their clothes to capture the mood of the commercial, and he suggested that she do the same.
Laime said Rofé convinced her to take off her shirt and bra. Then, he turned off the lights in the studio. Laime says she started to unzip her pants while he encouraged her to "really commit" to the voice read.
"I followed his direction, all the while cursing my inability to really commit," she said. "When I looked up, he had walked into the tiny soundproof booth completely naked. He started to gyrate up against me and tug on my jeans." She rushed out of the voice booth, she said.
She told her boyfriend, Andrew Rosen, immediately afterward about what happened. "I went to some stereotypical revenge fantasies, but I was confused, too. The level of manipulation was staggering and horrendous," said Rosen, who is now her husband of 10 years.
They both assumed it was a "one-off incident," inappropriate but not worth potentially ruining Rofé's career over, Rosen said. Now, he says, he realizes how "naïve" they both were. "We didn't take into consideration how many people he may have done this to, too, and that has been an eye-opening thing that brings light to this."
Laime said she left the voice-over industry to bury her confusion over what happened. "Because he didn't rape me, I didn't know what to make of it, so I just moved on."
Similar stories emerge
The women in the Facebook group had similar stories to tell.
Becky Poole said Rofé stripped naked and touched himself in 2000 while she voiced a track.
Heather Costa described Rofé grinding his erect penis against her backside and stroking her breasts while she read copy in 2008. When she rejected him, she said Rofé iced her out of the voice-over industry.
Sara Asselin said Rofé masturbated in 2004 while she read a suggestive script about chocolate pudding.
One of the newest members of the Facebook group, Alyssa Hanlon, said Rofé kissed her with his tongue while working on a Hershey Kisses commercial in September.
Six other women shared similar stories with CNN but didn't want to go on the record using their names. Some said they feared retaliation from the industry in which Rofé is well-known and respected.
Sharing their stories with each other felt like a breakthrough, several women said. Finally, they had found people who understood what they had gone through.
"There was that first week I didn't want to tear myself away (from the computer). I didn't want to miss a word. It was emotional, and I was grateful. At the same time, it was a heavy week because you're hearing the same story over and over again," said one woman who asked to remain anonymous.
All of the women who spoke to CNN said the alleged misconduct took place in Rofé's Manhattan studio above the Strand Book Store or in his Manhattan apartment. He now runs a studio in Irvington, New York.
One common thread most women shared was Rofé's consistent admonition that sex sells.
"If you aren't selling sex, you won't book voice-over work," one woman recalled him saying.
Several women said Rofé asked them to rehearse the opening scene from the play, "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," which opens with the main characters having sex.
Five women said he persuaded them to rehearse topless or naked. Two, including Shulman, said he showed them his penis.
Five women said Rofé groped their breasts or tried kissing them while they read; three said Rofé masturbated in front of them.
Many of the women spoke of the guilt they carried through the years. "I wish I had the courage to come forward (at the time), because maybe all of these other subsequent victims would have never become his later victims," Elizabeth Baechel said.
"It was such a gray area for me," Costa said. "If he raped me, I would have known that was wrong, you go tell someone. But he was so manipulative, you didn't think about it another way."
Together, the women say they are healing.
When Laime wrote her #MeToo post last year, she never expected to discover a community of women with a similar story to tell. "These women have given me purpose."
Because of support from the group, Shulman said she finally found the courage to share her entire account with her husband and best friend.
Noriega, who learned part of Shulman's account 15 years ago, said she started to cry when her friend revealed the rest.
"My friend was hurt a long time ago and I didn't know why. If I knew about it back then, we would have gone after him. But I understand why she didn't tell me," Noriega said.
After joining the group, Asselin said she also told her husband after more than a decade.
"To find that voice on Facebook and know that it wasn't my fault, that was a big revelation to me," she said.
After the group came together, the women went to the police hoping for accountability. NYPD officers informed them that each case was beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution.
The women shifted their focus to making the public and prospective clients aware of their allegations.
Laime said she visited Rofé's company website and sent emails to every woman voice-over artist listed on the roster -- about 80 people, she estimated. She asked them to report any "notable" experiences, no matter how small.
Laime said one woman responded that her experience with Rofé had been "nothing but constructive and utterly professional," and asked her not to contact her further.
At least one woman who asked to remain anonymous joined the Facebook group because of Laime's email. "I remember seeing that email and being like, 'Oh my God, It's not just me,'" she said.
The women said one goal of the group is to bring down Rofé's business so that he won't hurt anyone else. They also want to prove to themselves that they are stronger now.
"We are hoping that all of us coming together, his name will be out there. We will end this. We are getting our control back," Costa said.